A Pagan Primer

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01/06/2008 A Pagan Primer - 14
25/05/2008 A Pagan Primer - 13

Aired on 5/18/2008

A Pagan Primer – 12
Authenticity in published materials.

One of the comments that I often make when discussing spirituality is that “Antiquity doesn’t imply authenticity.” I think that I’m going to modify that statement just a bit and say that “Antiquity doesn’t necessarily imply authenticity.” The reason I’m going to make that clarification will be clear in just a while.

Many people level the claim against Wicca, with seeming satisfaction, that because it is a religion perhaps 70 years old, that its youth implies a lack of credibility. Some in the faith, and indeed in many forms of neo-paganism will try to show that their faith is quite older. They’ll look to some of the foundational principles of their faith, which are indeed quite old and use that as a basis for dating their tradition.

To me, that’s all quibbling. It really doesn’t matter. So, for me at least, in this sense, antiquity doesn’t imply authenticity when it comes to a system of belief. We can all trace our heritage, if we look far enough back, to many centuries before Judaism. We all have the same roots. It’s sort of like our biology. Take away our clothes and skin and we’re all pretty much the same … maybe a little more weight here or there, some taller, some shorter … some male, some female, and even some who are neither or both … there are differences, but any biologist can tell we’re all the same creatures.

But is there a case where antiquity can mean something? Is there a case where something simply being very old means something?

If we go to any bookstore today, we’ll find dozens if not hundreds of books on the occult, paganism, Wicca, astrology and more. Today, if you wish to publish a book, and you have a few hundred dollars, you can get it published and sell it in a store.

If you have a bit more money, if you have a bit of talent as a writer, you can even find a publisher who will take you on as a writer and mass-market your book. You might make a bit of money in the process.

If you peruse the occult, New Age or religious shelves in the bookstores, you will find many sorts of books. Some will be of high quality, will deal with important topics and offer very good information. Some will quite frankly be drivel … bits and pieces from other writers, dressed up, without meaning and not really worth the trees that were sacrificed for their publication.

This hasn’t always been the case. Not long ago, printing was a much more difficult task. Today, high-speed printing, new adhesives and automation make the publication of a book very inexpensive. A few years ago, a book was published with the use of movable type, invented by Gutenberg in the 1450’s. With this method, each character on a page was placed in a block by hand. Each page had to be created separately. The pages were assembled by hand, bound by hand and assembled into a book. This was much more expensive.

If you wished to publish a book in this fashion, it was a major expense, a major project. It took a lot of time. Even this though, was much less expensive than earlier methods. This invention meant that people who could afford them could have copies of more important books such as Bibles or other important works. Books were expensive, but available.

Prior to movable type, each page was engraved on a plate. A book that was to be published required an artist to make an engraving of each individual page. This took even more time. A book was not a trivial object. Many people didn’t have books, and most of the population didn’t read … without a great deal of published literature, it wasn’t necessary.

Even earlier than this were hand copied documents. Scribes would copy by hand earlier documents, making exact duplicates of the books or scrolls. Some were skilled in multiple languages.

Scribes were engaged full-time in copying documents. Each “book” to be copied was done so one-at-a-time, by hand. There was no mass-production of scrolls. Paper was manufactured by hand and was very expensive. Inks were made often by the artist or scribe.

What this means is that the farther back we go in history, the less likely it was that what was published was trivial. While none of this implies that what was written 1000 years or more ago was actually factual, it does mean that it was copied and preserved, that it was at least important. While some equivalent of books that most of us consider junk may have been written, it is far more likely that it is the important works are the ones that survived, and many of these did not.

In occult, New Age and Wicca sections of stores today (as that’s where you are likely to find books on Paganism), there are a tremendous variety of books available. Some are modern, some are reprints of earlier works, some have been in and out or print for years. One thing that I’ve found though, is that even in this “new religion”, there is little that is new. I’m one of these people who takes books that I find important and looks at the bibliography.

When you start doing this, you’ll find quite soon that while “neo-paganism” and Wicca are considered “new”, that they do have roots that dig much deeper than the 50 or 70 years ago which were considered the “beginnings’ of this movement.

Gerald Gardner, Raymond Buckland and others, who are considered the founders of modern Wicca didn’t simply pull their material out of thin air. A look at the suggested reading list in “Buckland’s Complete Book of Witchcraft” shows some titles such as:
Theodore Besterman’s “Crystal Gazing”, 1924.
Sir E. A. Wallis Budge, “Amulets and Talismans”, 1930.
Charles Godfrey Leland, “Aradia, Gospel of the Witches of Italy”, 1899

Gerald Gardner himself wrote “A Goddess Arrives” in 1939, more than a decade prior to the date claimed for the birth of Wicca.

When looking for material, it’s important to consider the reasons that people have for writing. Generally, there are but a few:
1. To advance your own ideas.
2. To discredit someone else.
3. Purely historical purposes.
4. Entertainment.
Some of these can be blended with each other.

This is one of the times when my “Antiquity does not necessarily imply authenticity” saying comes to mind. Much of the modern scholarship regarding early paganism comes to us from early Christian scholars. For the most part, the early Christian church did not have as its intent the preservation of ancient or Pagan culture.

Rather, their mission was to impose Christianity, and often what existed of other religions was destroyed completely. What comes to us of other faiths from Christian scholars needs to be considered in this light. While some of what is written appears to be historical in nature, that “history” was revealed through the eyes and hands of those who intended to eradicate the religion of the people they were writing about.

This doesn’t mean the information from such sources is worthless. What it means is that as a reader, one needs to be discerning. One tool that I try to use is to put a great deal less value on qualitative statements. I’ll listen to the “who, what, when and where”, when listening to antagonistic witnesses, but the “why” can be a bit more difficult to discern.

An episode of “The Way of the Master” with Kirk Cameron some time ago illustrates this fairly well. In this episode, he related how he infiltrated a Druidic gathering with hidden recorders. While he describes some aspects of the gathering accurately, his language is peppered with qualitative and judgmental language. He describes a chalice, but characterizes the contents as “some vile liquid”.

It is possible to have some idea of what was really going on there, especially if you’ve had prior experience or if you understand other similar Pagan rituals, by listening to his descriptions. We know that we can ignore words such as “vile”. They offer nothing in the way of an accurate description of what was happening at that ritual. This is the lesson we need to take back when looking at works from antiquity which purport to describe Paganism.

Even though ancient documents that describe (especially European) Paganism may be old, that doesn’t imply that they are accurate. Still their inaccuracies do not mean that these documents are unimportant. While “antiquity does not necessarily imply authenticity”, that doesn’t mean that we should simply ignore what does exist. It means that we should consider carefully the sources and interpret what is written based on what we know of the writers. Generally speaking, we don’t look to a Christian author for an unbiased understanding of Pagan writings.

This doesn’t mean that just because a writer claims to be of a particular faith, path or tradition, that they are necessarily qualified to speak authoritatively. Again, one more look at a shelf at a bookstore will yield many examples of those who claim authority that they do not posses.

Actually, some of the same tools used in identifying the worth of ancient texts are necessary for determining the worth of modern texts. What we need though is a starting point. For me, the starting point was such authors as Raymond Buckland, Gerald Gardner, Starhawk and others. In describing Wicca and the modern Goddess movement, these authors were not riding the tide of popularity that modern authors enjoy. They were writing for a decidedly small audience. Their books were far from guaranteed to be best sellers. Early on, these authors were simply describing, with some substance, the basis for their beliefs and their systems of practice.

As I read I take note of bibliographies and references. I grow outward. When I read a more modern book, I’ll examine it with what I know of previous works. I look for substance, I examine the ratio of fact and fancy. I look for depth of understanding. There are, quite frankly many books on the shelves today which are quite lacking in substance.

Wicca has been accused of being a “religion of teenage girls”, and much of what exists on bookshelves classified as “Wiccan” supports this. Then again, there are groups and books for teenage Christians … that doesn’t mean that Christianity is a “religion of teens”.

The point is that while books such as “To Ride a Silver Broomstick” by Silver Ravenwolf don’t offer a great deal of depth, and while they do sell, especially to teenage girls, a teenager is much less likely to read and understand (and use safely) such books as the Farrar’s “A Witches’ Bible” or “Buckland’s Complete Book of Witchcraft”.

I’ll admit that I’m one who has occasionally criticized books that I consider “fluffy”. But thinking about it, I’ve had many years to develop my spirituality and I have a great deal more education under my belt than most teenagers. For a young person, or one without exceptional reading skills, perhaps the books that I consider “fluffy” can offer an easy way to present very basic information.

But such books are NOT the place I go to for a deep understanding of Paganism or the craft. I think that one thing that is missing in Paganism is an understanding of what sorts of books are appropriate for particular levels of understanding, as well as categories of books for various age groups.

Where many Pagans come into their faith as adults, we’ll go to a bookstore and find much of what’s there almost insulting. Perhaps we pass judgment on the authors. We might forget in our youth as a religious tradition that we don’t have a system in place for teaching young people. Perhaps I’ll cut people like Ravenwolf a bit of slack.

But still, we do need some sort of measure … a way to understand what it is that we are reading, whether new or old. For me, the greatest tool that I’ve found is other books and teachers, along with a questioning mind, and a few key points that I keep in mind while reading and studying.

1. If a writer is speaking to the motives of someone he or she hasn’t met, or of someone who hasn’t clearly identified their motives, I tend to ignore it. For example, the assertion that because there are many figures of women, that early society must have been matriarchal is a position that really can’t be supported. It may be true, but female figures alone are not sufficient to make that claim.

2. Unsubstantiated statements are nothing more than opinion. Likewise, a statement based on an unsubstantiated statement of another is a recapitulation of opinion. To continue our example, discussions about a prior matriarchy, based on one author’s interpretation of the “Venus of Willendorf”, without documented evidence of how our ancestors actually used these sculptures are meaningless.

3. Everyone loves hyperbole and rumors take a long time to go away. We still hear tales of 9 million witches being burned by the church. It’s faulty statistics and most everyone knows that the number was far less but that figure will still show up for quite some time.

4. The words “It is well understood by leading …. whatever” are, without documentation, meaningless. We used the similar phrase “Everyone’s doing it” as children with very limited success. We shouldn’t be resorting to it as adults.

To sum up, I suppose that what I’m saying is that for very ancient writings, while we might not be able to show that what was written was necessarily TRUE, we can show that it was VALUABLE. The effort and cost of production alone imply that there was good reason to create such documents. We still need to look at what exists though with a critical eye.

For modern writings though, the fact that something exists in print is not at all indicative of its value. It’s simply too inexpensive to publish a book, and the existence alone of a book does not imply worth. We need to be very careful when considering the worth of the information contained in a book, and our best tools are a critical mind and a willingness to learn and study the subject, taking nothing for granted.